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How hard is it to opt out of third party data collection?

Companies keep finding new ways to collect our personal information and sell it to marketers and advertisers. Now wireless phone companies like Verizon make money off data about our physical location and the websites we visit. Of course, companies generally include a caveat: consumers are allowed to "opt out." But that’s not always easy.

On many websites, the option to "opt out" and limit the sharing of consumer data is not immediately obvious.

“Opting out of data brokers and advertising schemes is notoriously difficult,” says Adi Kamdar with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting digital rights.

He says some websites try to hide the opt-out option.

“Other sites make it so you have to provide more information about yourself in order to opt out. And sometimes people feel weird or creeped-out about doing that,” Kamdar says.

Companies have a financial incentive to discourage us from opting out.

“Today, your data is the new gold. It’s the currency that companies are trading back and forth and making tens of billions of dollars on. So of course companies like Verizon and Facebook don’t want you to opt out,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of a consumer privacy group called the Center for Digital Democracy.

Chester favors a national privacy law that would restrict the trading of personal information.

But until then, it’s up to us.

“There’s certain privacy-friendly browser extensions that will block third-parties from collecting your data, or limit the amount of data you can give to them,” Kamdar says.

A browser extension is a kind of computer program. Kamdar recommends one called Ghostery and another called DoNotTrackMe.

Many people protect their privacy by clearing the tracking cookies from their computer. But Kamdar says that approach can backfire, because companies use cookies to identify which consumers have chosen to opt out.

“As soon as you clear your opt-out cookie too, you opt back in to this data broker’s scheme,” Kamdar says.

So if you clear the cookies from your computer, you’ll need to start over and opt out all over again.


Two tips on data privacy from the Electionic Frontier Foundation

1.  Install an add-on to protect your privacy online. Facebook is using "blind cookie-matching" to match up users of online marketer BlueKai with specific Facebook accounts. We'll explain the mechanics of this more in another post, but for now it's good to know that blocking trackers is a good general practice for stopping this type of tracking. We recommend you use a tool such as Ghostery (now available on Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer) or Abine's DoNotTrackMe (available in Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer) or AdBlockPlus with EasyPrivacy Lists. See more comprehensive instructions in our 4 Simple Changes to Stop Online Tracking.

2. Avoid giving your phone number and email address to companies when possible.Facebook and these companies are primarily using hashed email addresses to match users between databases, though they may also use hashed phone numbers. If you’re filling out a survey or signing up to receive email updates from a website, consider creating and using a different email address than the one you associate with your Facebook account. Similarly, consider setting up an alternate phone number you can give to companies apart from the phone number you connect with your social media accounts.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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